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White: Challenge 'is to minimize the collateral damage'

2nd Battalion 32nd Armor Lt. Col. Pat White in Najaf Thursday
U.S. troops fight with insurgents after moving into Najaf, Iraq, and taking control of the provincial governor's office.

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Jane Arraf

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- As coalition forces rolled into Najaf on Thursday to take over the governor's office, CNN Bahgdad bureau chief Jane Arraf was there.

Amid gunfire in the background, Arraf spoke with 2nd Battalion 32nd Armor Lt. Col. Pat White about what was happening in the Iraqi city.

ARRAF: We are in the governor's office where U.S. forces have taken control. Now, this is almost simultaneously with an announcement in Baghdad that the U.S. civilian coalition has appointed a new governor to come back here, and try to reassert security and authority in a city that's been taken over by forces loyal to a radical Shiite cleric.

Now, the forces here have not taken it without resistance; and we've had quite a lot of gunfire. We have with us the head of the 2nd Battalion 32nd Armor, Lt. Col. Pat White to tell us what...

What have we been hearing that's out there? How serious is that?

WHITE: Ah, Jane, it's probably not that serious. It's small pockets of three to five men moving around with rifles and pistols, and rocket-propelled grenade. Attempting really harassing fire is what we're seeing from multiple sides. A little bit of pressure to the north more than we expected, but we have killed some enemy up there. And now we'll continue to defend the governor's palace until he gets here and then we'll stay here to protect him as well.

ARRAF: You seem to be increasing offensive operations, attacks against the Mehdi militia. Is that part of your strategy here?

WHITE: Well, what we're doing is conducting operation where we see fit so that as we develop a target through intelligence, we'll go out to that target and we'll do a precision operation. And then we will move back out because we really are knowledgeable in the sensitivities of the holy city. And we want the Shia people to understand that we will not take any aggressions against any of their holy mosques, unless it's been used for storage of weapons.

But the Ali mosque and the Kufa mosque, at this point in time, are our primary targets that we're observing. And I'm keeping my soldiers away from there.

ARRAF: One of the things that seems to be apparent in all this is you've, obviously, got a lot more weaponry, a lot more firepower. You're facing an enemy that isn't at great numbers as you say, but they are fighting unconventional warfare. What kind of challenge is that?

WHITE: I think the challenge is to minimize the collateral damage of peaceful people. I mean directly across the street from the governor's compound is the neighborhood of about 30,000 individuals that have been living here for quite sometime. And when the Mehdi attacks, he's attacking these people as well. So my forces really have to use aimed precision fire to kill the enemy he attacks.

ARRAF: How are you going to avoid having to stay here longer than you already have? Having to stay in Iraq and Najaf?

WHITE: Well, Jane, that's really not my decision. And we will remain here until the job is finished, or until my higher chain of command tells me that we can depart and go home.

CNN Bahgdad bureau chief Jane Arraf in Najaf on Thursday

ARRAF: I guess part of that is the Iraqi security forces. What stage are they in being able to help secure at least part of this city?

WHITE: Well, here on the three compounds that we've occupied today, there were Iraqi security forces present. This evening, we'll reintegrate them into the security of this compound with coalition forces. We also have the Iraqi police working downtown Najaf. Their main police station is directly to the south of the governor's palace. They were up on duty today. They're also patrolling. And we're working to reintegrate the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps as well into the overall security of some of the government buildings. And at some point in time, we'll continue to train more Iraqi police and more Iraqi Civil Defense Corps personnel.


ARRAF: And there is the gunfire again.

WHITE: Sure. And what we're seeing is up to the north, a little heavier resistance going against a couple of tanks that we have positioned up there.

Poking their heads around corners while they're firing RPGs, and so we've gone into a defensive position. And we're going to allow them to continue to attack if they want to.

ARRAF: Thank you so much, Colonel.

WHITE: Sure, Jane.

ARRAF: That was Lt. Col. Pat White telling us about these ongoing battles around the city. But clearly, still staying far away from the holy sites in Najaf. And here they have taken control and intend to stay in the governor's building until the governor arrives.

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